June 21, 2010/The Detroit News
This month state lawmakers are expected to vote on the passage of legislation that would allow Michigan community colleges to grant four-year degrees in select high-need job areas. Lawmakers would be wrong to vote for these bills, yet they should also continue to pressure public universities to expand their capacity to provide training in these skills.
Michigan's 28 community colleges, charged with providing affordable education options and regionally relevant jobs programs, are lobbying for a package of bills now in the state House and Senate that would allow them to award bachelor's degrees in nursing, cement technology, maritime technology and culinary arts.
They have good reason to do so. In fields such as nursing, a growing number of medical systems require a four-year degree to obtain a good job, instead of traditional two-year degrees. And waiting lists for such programs have stalled hundreds of Michiganians from moving into high-demand jobs.
In a state with one of the highest unemployment rates nationwide, this debate would seem simple. But giving community colleges the power to grant four-year degrees also would lead to other problems which Michigan doesn't need.
Four-year schools are more expensive, for both taxpayers and students. Their costs are higher because they need more faculty with advanced degrees and support services. Community colleges almost always have far lower graduation rates, as well.
So while they may appear to be a comparatively inexpensive alternative to four-year universities, the cost of what is called "degree production" must be considered, says Ed St. John, a University of Michigan professor of higher education. When that is considered, community colleges often come up short. Michigan can afford neither lower graduation rates nor or higher costs associated with community colleges moving toward four-year institutions.
Instead we'd like to see the Legislature support an alternative proposed by the state's four-year institutions: University Centers where several universities may locate operations at a community college and offer classes to achieve degrees in high-need areas where demand warrants. Macomb Community College has been a pioneer in this area.
That said, four-year universities have neglected to offer such widespread services for years. Shortages in nursing program slots and in other high-demand professional training programs are an old story in southeast Michigan and elsewhere around the state.
For that reason, lawmakers should give four-year universities a deadline to provide such expanded access. Only the recent threat of competition from community colleges has spurred four-year universities to propose the overdue University Center concept. Now lawmakers need to keep the pressure on public universities to ensure they act on their stated interest, while limiting community colleges to their historic and vital mission.